At last, the Health Ministry has taken a positive decision to get tough with doctors leaving the country without prior notice. This comes in the wake of the only anaesthetist at the Embilipitiya District General Hospital leaving the hospital without prior intimation. The Health Ministry has now said it would take stringent action against doctors who travel overseas without prior permission the nature of the action to be made known in the near future, the media quoted Deputy Director General (Medical Services) Dr G Wijesuriya as saying. Doctors will not be permitted to leave the country without prior notice to the Health authorities, he said.
In fact, such a decision should have been taken prior to the flight of doctors seeking greener pastures in such large numbers. There are reports that some 2000 doctors have left the country during the last 2 years with still more expected to leave in the coming days.
If true, it is certainly cause for grave concern which should engage Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella’s urgent attention. He should at least strive to keep back the remaining doctors by offering them an acceptable solution to their issues lest the health service suffers a complete collapse.
The situation is further complicated given a recent revelation by the GMOA that the country is short of 4,000 doctors. The number of interns under training too has dropped drastically which will compound the problem, aggravating the shortage of doctors and medical staff.
Perhaps the GMOA itself should be partly held responsible for the dearth of doctors in the country. Its campaign against the SAITM Campus and the opposition to the absorption of foreign-qualified medical students into the State health sector too have contributed to the doctor shortage. In this respect, the decision taken by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to increase the intake to Medical College no doubt is a prudent one.
But why didn’t the Health Ministry monitor the doctor exodus and arrest the trend at the very outset? What was it doing until the doctors were leaving the country during the past eight months? As the Minster opined, nothing can prevent doctors or other professionals from going abroad to better their lot. However, the Ministry ought to have taken note of the growing departure of our medical professionals and persuaded them to remain, perhaps by the offer of additional incentives or perks.
After all, Government doctors are products of the free education system, and their first duty lies towards the taxpayers who bear the cost of their education. Hence, if push comes to shove the Government should consider taking drastic measures to stem the alarming tide. It should consider extracting a legally binding undertaking from all Government doctors to serve for a specific period in the country, first, before considering moving out.
The Government certainly should not lose time in tackling the problem of the dwindling number of doctors in the country, who are increasingly being compelled to seek greener pastures due to the severe economic crisis in the country. If the situation worsens, not only doctors but also other professionals too are bound to leave the country in droves. And once they have departed it is foolhardy to imagine that they can be brought back.
Former President Maithripala Sirisena extended an invitation to all Sri Lankan professionals domiciled abroad to return to the country and serve the Motherland. There is no knowing what the response was. But from the looks of things ‘Serving the Motherland’ appeal had plainly not worked. Hence the departed doctors could be lost to the country forever, and the vicious cycle is bound to continue and all the doctors we produce under the free education system will continue to leave until the country is starved of medical professionals to treat the poor. Hence, the decision by the ministry to get tough with doctors leaving the country without permission is a timely one
Meanwhile, doctors are a frustrated lot – their pleas for the replenishment of fast-diminishing vital medicines in Government hospitals going unheeded. Instead, we see a battle of sorts between the Health Minister and Health officials on the question of whose responsibility it is to ensure adequate medical stocks.
That certain hospitals have no money even to clear their waste piles certainly tells a tale of the unfolding crisis. With most vital medicines and drugs unavailable in Government hospitals, poor patients are forced to purchase these from private pharmacies. Even with the recent price reduction in drugs, the poor still cannot afford to pay even the reduced price which leaves a big question mark as to the country’s free healthcare service.
Urgent steps should be taken to identify vulnerable sections and arrangements have to be made to provide them with medicines at subsidized cost at designated centres. Pharmacy owners should be persuaded to reduce their prices so that the poor could afford to buy their drugs and medicines without undue pressure. After all, pharmacies made huge profits during the pandemic days going by the long queues opposite pharmacies and a flourishing home delivery system that was put in place.
The private sector too should chip in to help out in this desperate situation including private banks which regularly boast of record profits and bumper dividends to shareholders. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. This certainly is the time for the Haves to loosen their purse strings a bit and reach out to the Have Nots around the country.